On the Aisle with Larry – November 2018

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York.  In this column, Larry reports on Bernhardt/Hamlet, What the Constitution Means to Me, Apologia and The True.

It looks very much like 2018 is going to turn out to be the Year of the Woman.  More women than ever before are running for office across the nation, and many political pundits are forecasting that if the Blue Wave happens, it will be in large part because of women who are appalled by the behavior of the President and his lackeys in Congress.  We’ll see.

In the theatre, more plays by women are turning up on the boards than ever before. On Broadway, you can see Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet (at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre), Alexi Kayer Campbell’s Apologia (at Roundabout’s Off Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre) and What the Constitution Means to Me, written by and starring Heidi Schreck (at NY Theatre Workshop).

“Historical plays” are rare these days.  Playwrights Horizons has come out and said they don’t produce them, and many other theatres have the same attitude, which is a shame.  Rebeck’s play is, I think, her first play not set in the present.  It’s about the great 19th Century French actress Sarah Bernhardt as she prepares to take on the greatest role in the classical repertoire, Hamlet.  Her last venture, L’Aiglon by Edmond Rostand, which she financed with her own money, lost it all and now The Divine Sarah desperately needs a hit to replenish her coffers.  Great artist that she is, she has decided to take on Hamlet, much to the consternation of the critics of her time (all, of them male of course).  Max Beerbohm went to far as to write, “Creative power, the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility; women are denied it, in so far as they practice art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere.  Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.”

Daunted by Shakespeare’s poetry, Bernhardt commissions a French prose adaptation by Edmond Rostand, her lover and the author of Cyrano de Bergerac.  Still she has set herself a daunting task, and over the course of the play we watch her build her performance in rehearsal. We also are treated to a great performance by English actress Janet McTeer, although she eschews the melodramatic acting style typical of the 19th Century, playing Bernhardt playing Hamlet as if she herself were playing Hamlet today.  This was probably the right choice by McTeer and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, as a Bernhardt performance today would look awfully hammy.

The supporting players are first rate.  Dylan Baker is amusing as Bernhardt’s leading man, Constant Coquelin (who would go on to triumph as Cyrano), and Jason Butler Horner is also terrific as Rostand.  That fine young actor Nick Westrate has a wonderful one-scene turn as Bernhardt’s son, Maurice.

Rebeck has been bedeviled all her career by male critics who just don’t “get” her.  Frank Rich called her first play to be done in New York, Spike Heels, mere “pillow talk,” for instance.  She has been quite outspoken about the sexism women playwright’s face, which has pissed ‘em off even more.  Here, in her play about a courageous actress willing to take a risk in service of her art, damn the critics and full speed ahead, she has fought back in the best way an artist can – with her art.

When she was a teenager, Heidi Schreck went around the country competing in speech contests sponsored by the American Legion, winning enough money to finance her college education.  In What the Constitution Means to Me, she recreates the sort of speech she used to give, though she makes no effort to impersonate the teenager she was when she gave it, occasionally interjecting stories about her life.  The set, by Rachel Hauck, appears to be the stage of an American Legion hall, replete with photographs of many legionnaires – all of them, of course, men.  When she was a kid, Schreck didn’t much consider the Constitution as a document created by men, but now she does, and is both amusing and enlightening as to how it has pertained to women since it was signed and went into effect.

A highlight for me was when Schreck engages in a debate with a contemporary teenager, on a specific topic of constitutional law, and then the audience gets to vote on who won.  At the performance I attended, this student was portrayed brilliantly by Thursday Williams.

At the end, each audience member is given a copy of the U.S. Constitution.  I mailed mine to President Tweet, as obviously he has never read it.

This just in: What the Constitution Means to Me is moving to the Greenwich House Theatre later this month for a much-deserved extended run.

Meanwhile, Roundabout has another strong showing, Apologia at its Laura Pels Theatre, starring one of our greatest stage actresses, Stockard Channing, as a radical ex-pat American art historian named Kristin.  Her adult children converge on her country house for her birthday, which far from being a celebration of Mom is a litany of recrimination and resentment.  Son Peter is a banker who despoils third world countries, much to Krsitin’s horror.  Also to her horror, Peter has recently married a Midwestern girl who is a serious Christian. Kristin is, of course, just as serious an atheist.  She has recently published a memoir called “Apologia,” in which she goes on and on about Giotto but doesn’t mention her sons.  Her refusal to accept what her fierce political determination has done to her family forms the core of the play.

Channing is witty, supercilious and ferocious as Kristin, and there is strong supporting work from Hugh Dancy, who plays both sons and from John Tillinger as an elderly gay friend always ready with a bon mot.

I also enjoyed Sharr White’s The True, produced by the New Group at the Signature Center, another play with a terrific central female role.  She is Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, a behind the scenes manipulator in Albany politics fighting for the re-election of the Governor even as other political operatives want to replace him and think it’s time for her to go. Edie Falco was phenomenal in this great role, and although the play has now closed reportedly it’s moving to Broadway, so look for it to resurface there, if not this season then next.

BERNHARDT/HAMLET. American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org/tickets or 212-719-1300

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
TICKETS: 212-460-5475

APOLOGIA. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org/tickets or 212-719-1300

THE TRUE. Alas, closed

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